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This piece was originally published on lauraclydesdale.com and is republished with permission.
“She’s a ‘Basic’ girl,” my daughter says.
“What do you mean she’s basic?” I ask.
“You’ve never heard that expression before?”
“Unless you are talking about computer code, no,” I reply
The Urban Dictionary defines “Basic,” as: “She is your run of the mill white girl that has no identity of her own. She has no unique redeeming qualities… Whatever is popular, she is into it whether she likes it or not personally.”
Hmmmm…I don’t think I like that term.
Pop culture is a kind of currency for girls. It’s like how my son is compelled to be up on the latest sports teams and scores. We can debate whether it’s right or wrong, but my son and his friends aren’t labeled in such an undignified way as “Basic.”
It hits me after talking to a colleague at lunch about how much she hates another label — “Mean Girl.”
“Yes!” I agree. “Unfortunately, I might have been called a ‘Mean Girl’ myself this morning after confronting another mother in our soccer carpool for not being a reliable partner in the pool!”
We had a good laugh at my story, but after the difficult carpool conversation, I had said to my husband, “I bet she thinks I’m a total bitch.”
My husband looked at me funny and said, “Boy, you women are hard on yourselves and others! All you did was stand up for yourself. You didn’t do it nastily. This is one instance in a sea of other instances with this woman. Does it only take one moment of showing you have a backbone to garner the label “bitch?”
It finally clicked.
Instead of trying to figure out what the underlying problem might be, women tend to unthinkingly label each other as ‘bitches’ or ‘bossy,’ and their girl’s friends (and sometimes even their own girls) as ‘mean girls’ if we catch even the slightest whiff of a behavior. I am not free of blame.
My husband is right. Women have a low tolerance for conflict with other women. It’s easier to just slap a label on it than to sort it out.
Unfortunately, these terms are dehumanizing and imply that the girl or woman has an inherent character flaw.
Research conducted by the non-profit girls’ leadership organization called, ROX (Ruling our Experiences), proves that girls’ relationships with one another get more contentious as they go through school. When they asked girls the open-ended question, “What are the big things going on for girls your age?” the most frequently occurring theme for girls of all ages was conflict with other girls.
Girls tell us these challenges are:
- Girls being mean
- Conflict between groups of girls
- Gossip and rumors.
While most girls reported that they have friends they can talk to about serious issues, a whopping 41% of girls said they do not trust other girls.
In Girlfighting, psychologist, and professor, Lyn Mikel Brown, argues that this isn’t just some sort of developmental stage. Instead, she contends these behaviors stem from girls feeling pressure to uphold unrealistic expectations, to be popular, and to swallow their strong feelings.
In other words, girls strive to operate under the radar (and are labeled “Basic” if they go too far down this path). When the pressure gets to be too much, and because they are unpracticed in the ways of dealing with conflict and strong emotions, their “mean girl” escapes.
Instead of dealing with the true cause of why girls believe they need to twist themselves into ridiculous contortions, we look down upon our girls, throw a label on them, and chuckle that this behavior is just part of growing up female.
But chuckling at this doesn’t serve our girls.
ROX says we must, “Recognize “girl drama,” “gossip and rumors” and other types of conflict between girls as an emotional expression of anger, frustration and disappointment, not simply “girls being girls.”
SO WHAT TO DO?
This is a big subject with a lot of layers, but we can start by stopping throwing around these terms and labels.
Simone Marean, Co-founder of Girls Leadership, agrees and says we must disrupt this disturbing pattern of labeling. Instead of accepting these behaviors as an initiation rite, we should call the behavior or action by name.
“Mean Girl” does not describe a person every time there is an uncomfortable moment in a relationship. It’s a moment, not a person’s identity. Simone Marean says, “We wouldn’t call our girls bitches! But “mean girls” is just ‘bitches jr.’ So let’s not use it anymore because it dehumanizes the speaker and the person being labeled. In a school environment, this label stays with them and impacts their friendships for years.”
MAREAN SUGGESTS WE USE THESE PHRASES INSTEAD:
- “Girl(s) who made a mistake, or messed up.”
- “Girl(s) who didn’t communicate directly, because that is hard.”
- “Girl(s) who doesn’t know what to do with her feelings.”
- “Girl(s) who hurt you, or others.”
- “Girl(s) who needs some help figuring how to manage this conflict.”
“The point is, this girl is not the devil, but a young human,” says Marean.
Calling the behavior or action by name will help foster healthier friendships amongst our girl’s friends. Girls’ friendships are crucial to girls’ happiness. According to the ROX study, girls who report they get along well with other girls and trust other girls reported the lowest levels of sadness and depression. Girls who have strong and trusting friendships with other girls fare better in life. What further inspiration do we need to teach girls the skills to navigate conflict?
When we help girls articulate what they are authentically feeling or experiencing, we are encouraging communication and transformation rather than competition. This rephrasing will go a long way to helping guide girls through learning and change to establish stronger female friendships and relationships.
Even if your girl doesn’t get along great with another girl, by articulating the action or behavior instead of labeling her as an unchanging and caustic person, you model a faith in the other girl’s ability to learn and grow. There are a lot of relationships that fall between the categories Best Friend and Enemy, and they are always changing.
The buck stops with us.
Let us help our girls call temporary conflict what it is and help her work through it thoughtfully and with love.
Today I am taking a pledge, and I hope you will join me, to stop using the word “Mean Girl” in any situation.
I will add this term to the dumpster along with other ‘banned’ terms like Bitch, Bossy, Shrew, and Harpy. I’ll toss it in right after the word “Basic.”
Laura Clydesdale had an epiphany one day when she noticed her then 10-year-old daughter exhibiting some of the same career-derailing traits as many of her female clients. Did it really start this early, she wondered? Laura decided to leverage her 15 years of experience as a leadership development consultant and launched her popular girls leadership blog.
She is a regular contributor to the Washington Post, has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Toronto Star, Parent.co and has also been featured on several radio shows and podcasts. Laura lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and two children.
You can follow her on Twitter at @l_clydesdale and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.